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I remember seeing an episode of The Outer Limits in which a man evolves very rapidly, developing a sixth finger on each hand. He's shown blazing through some difficult piano pieces.

My question is, would a sixth finger on each hand actually make you a better pianist? Are there any passages of piano music that would be easier with a sixth finger? Or would there be no actual advantage?

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  • Might give a wider stretch, say 10th.
    – Tim
    Feb 16 at 12:42
  • Oh, that's interesting—as soon as I read the premise, I thought of such a person creating new music. This question seems to focus on the advantage of the 6-fingered in playing existing 5-fingered repertoire. Also, this is not just fantasy; extra fingers do happen. I presume this question focuses on a scenario in which the 6th finger is comparable in size and dexterity to the other 5. While that wiki page does show some cases like that, my perception is it's far more often less usable, like a forked finger or a very short one. Feb 16 at 13:12
  • I'd wondered about an extra finger, but I'd also wondered about having a second thumb on each hand, so that left and right hands were symmetrical... Feb 16 at 13:22
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    My brother brings up the embellished version of Schubert's Impromptu in G flat major in the movie Gattaca more often - the one that a 12-fingered man plays.
    – Dekkadeci
    Feb 16 at 16:16
  • Would a sixth finger make you a better pianist in a world of five-finger people? Maybe. But would a sixth finger make you a better pianist in a world of twenty-finger people? Feb 16 at 23:56

1 Answer 1

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My question is, would a sixth finger on each hand actually make you a better pianist?

Why would it? It might increase the types of sonorities you might be able to play. If your hand was actually bigger than average as well, it might increase your span (which again increases types of sonorities possible to play with each hand). But most of piano playing is based on dexterity and learned patterns. That is, it depends more on what you can do with the fingers you have.

As it is, there's the well-known weakness of the ring finger compared to the other fingers (due to anatomical differences). Actual six-fingered individuals have various degrees of independence in their digits, but if the extra finger essentially results in a kind of "extra ring finger" that's not as independent as the others, it may not add a lot of advantages again except maybe for being able to fill out some chords.

Are there any passages of piano music that would be easier with a sixth finger?

Two potential places one could imagine this helping would be scales and large chords. But very few standard scale fingering patterns make use of the fifth finger as it is. Most scales as you play up or down tend to flip the thumb or fingers over or under with the 2nd, 3rd, or 4th fingers (depending on key). Adding yet another finger in the mix is unlikely to add much to potential patterns you could play. It's already a bit more awkward putting the thumb under the fifth finger due to the distances involved, so it requires greater wrist rotation to be smooth. Thus, there are probably relatively few advantages to scales with a sixth finger. (Unless maybe you're using very old-fashioned fingering patterns as used to be employed back in the 18th century, which often involved interplay of the 4th and 5th fingers, as well as the 3rd, rather than the thumb-under technique most people use nowadays for scales.)

So what about chords? Well, most chords are already structured to involve intervals mostly of thirds and sometimes seconds in close position, so the four fingers we have (beside the thumb) do a good job in playing tertian harmonies. Having an additional finger might broaden the vocabulary possible somewhat, particularly if the hand is actually wider. But if the hand isn't much wider (still roughly the average adult who can reach about an octave to a tenth), the density of chords with normal harmonies won't really get a lot of benefit from a sixth finger. The biggest gap is obviously between the thumb and the first finger in chords, and that's not going to be helped by the addition of sixth finger. (An additional thumb-like appendage could help perhaps to fill in chords a bit more, but such mutations are much rarer and to my knowledge don't generally result in a functional additional finger that's independent in motion.)

In sum, if you had big hands with six fingers, maybe you could voice a chord more richly that spanned a 10th (or even an 11th or 12th). But how often do you even fill in chords with all five fingers now? Most five-note chords played with one hand typically involve using the thumb to depress two keys at once, not all five fingers. (Though there obviously are exceptions where you use all five fingers at once.) Still, if fingers were spaced out enough and overall span wide enough, some bigger chords could be possible with six fingers.

But that's about all I can think of. In general, I'd say there's relatively little advantage for standard piano repertoire that exists, as most of it is designed with the assumption of five fingers. In fact, having a sixth finger could even "get in the way" in some situations, particularly if (as I noted above) it's a weaker finger like the ring finger. (Most human genetic mutations with six fingers don't result in fully-functional fingers to begin with.)

If you really want to know, you probably should try to contact the Brazilian family of six-fingered people, who appear to have several musicians. The linked video includes at least a guitarist and a young girl playing keyboard at the end. She says her piano teacher wishes to have six fingers like her, but it's unclear what advantages she thinks it may introduce.

I would note in the photos in the video that some family members seem to have the finger nearest their thumb a little more evenly distributed between the other fingers and the thumb, which could help fill in that thumb-finger gap I mentioned above in chords. But other family members seem to have the five fingers more clustered with a bigger gap to the thumb, as with typical five-finger hands.

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